Pope John Paul II's name is being used by many commentators to support their attacks against the Islamic center proposed for a building two blocks from the World Trade Center site. The pope had agreed to withdraw a convent near Auschwitz, as William McGurn pointed out in an Aug. 3 Wall Street Journal column. Others have followed on this, including some commentators who've taken very extreme positions.As discussed in a July 31 post by J. Peter Nixon, there may be some similarities. But to focus on this one decision by John Paul in order to make a case against the Islamic center and to ignore his many dramatic attempts to find common ground with Muslims, as some commentators have done in recent days, is a disservice to his memory.So I will offer an anecdote about how John Paul handled a potential dispute with Muslims over "sacred ground." In this case, the sacred ground was Manger Square in Bethlehem, where Pope John Paul celebrated Mass on March 22, 2000.The pope had just finished his homily, ending with "Assalamu alaikum," when the Muslim call to prayer broke forth from the loudspeakers at a mosque that bordered on Manger Square. It seemed, at first, like a rude intrusion on the historic Mass the pope was celebrating in the Jubilee year. But John Paul sat quietly and listened as the muezzin sang God's praise; he seemed to be savoring the moment. It was as if the Muslim prayer mingled with the Mass.Just before the Mass ended, it was announced that church and mosque officials had coordinated the call to prayer, which had been delayed to accommodate the pope's homily. It was a small matter, really, but this cooperation stirred the crowd, mostly Arab Christians, to cheers, applause and even to tears. A sacred space had been shared, and everyone was the better for it.
Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses.